With a family history of depression, Dr. Donna Rose Addis has seen the impact of the mood disorder firsthand. This personal experience drove her to pursue research to better understand its effects on the brain, which in turn, will lead to better treatments for patients.
“There are psychological reasons explaining why this mood disorder might affect memory, but it wasn’t until I got into this field of research that I linked these memory problems with the damage caused by the prolonged elevation of stress hormones on the hippocampus – the part of the brain critical for memory – during depression,” says Dr. Addis, Canada 150 Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory and Aging and senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI).
Feelings of sadness and hopelessness are frequently associated with the mood disorder, but another consistent symptom that is not as well known is memory impairment.
“Many people don’t realize that with depression, changes also happen to a person’s memory,” says Dr. Addis. “This is important because our research has shown that this cognitive ability might be linked to a person’s depressive state and impacts their ability to recover.”
Dr. Addis explores a unique research direction that seeks ways to improve a person’s ability to picture the future, which is tied to their memory. Her groundbreaking work in this field was named as a Top Ten Breakthrough by Science, a prominent scientific journal, the year it was discovered, and will open the door to develop interventions for depression and other mood disorders amongst older adults.
“Being able to imagine the future allows us to mentally work through potential obstacles in our minds and to troubleshoot how we might best cope with those situations,” says Dr. Addis. “This is important to our psychological well-being since it helps us use more effective coping strategies and eases our worries about upcoming events. It also improves our ability to focus on our goals.”
Individuals with depression who have feelings of hopelessness and difficulty coping may find it more challenging to adapt to situations, adds Dr. Addis. Older adults are more vulnerable to depression and symptoms may be overlooked and left untreated since they appear alongside other conditions. It is possible that helping these people imagine the future in more detail may reduce the sense of hopelessness about the future.
“Through our research, we could improve the well-being of older adults and individuals with depression by finding ways to preserve and enhance their ability to visualize the future,” says Dr. Addis.